Reducing Food Waste at University Events

Ever wondered what happens to left over food at catered at events? Oliver explains the reasons why so much is food is leftover and holds universities accountable for excess waste. With initiatives to act more sustainably out there, universities need to step up to the mark.

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In the current climate recalling university events may seem akin to examining the practices of an ancient civilisation- large gatherings seem so unfamiliar and alien in this era of online lectures and exclusive bubbles that it is difficult to remember that they happened at all. However, with many universities aiming to get larger gatherings restarted by 2021, these events are not just an obscure practice to be lost to the stands of time, but rather a very real part of our future reality.

The gap created by cancelled events provides an opportune time to rethink and re-imagine how we manage these events to make them more sustainable. One potential component we could direct our focus to when doing this is the catering of these events; whether it be a talk from an inspiring speaker or an opportunity to shamelessly plead for jobs from alumni during a networking event, catered food is a feature often present at events and in many cases can even prove an incentive to come along. 

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Why is so much food wasted?

Unfortunately, the presence of food at such events is too often accompanied by waste. A recent report  found that the average catered event wastes between 15-20% of the food it produces and it is estimated that overall this creates 10 million tonnes of food waste in the UK per year. There are few significant efforts made to reduce these impacts and this number likely to rise in future. But why is this happening? Are we all just too busy chatting or too nervous networking to stomach scotch eggs and sausage rolls? As you can imagine, the issue of food waste at such events is multifaceted and there are a multitude of causes of this food waste, but thankfully there are also a large number of potential solutions to fight it. 

1.      Too much food, not enough people

One of the major causes of food waste at events is over catering. According to a report by WRAP, a significant portion of the waste from events is generated from over anticipating the number of attendees to an event and resultant excessive food provisions. One way in which this can be managed is exhibited in the case of the University of Manchester, where event organisers must confirm the number of attendees to the event with the hospitality service 2 days in advance of the event. The University’s catering department also collates information on trends of food consumption at events to work out what food types are more popular and how much attendees typically consume to try to better inform future catering provisions. Wider adoption of such practices could be highly beneficial and would prevent over catering and the subsequent food waste. The implementation of such strategies can also be facilitated by software such as Saffron which facilitates data collection and storage on wasted food and can help to identify particular ingredients and combinations which may be unpopular to better inform future catering provisions. 

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2.      Plates Sizes

In attempting to reduce food waste at events we should think not just of the food itself but of the porcelain, or more likely paper, that it is presented on. Plate sizes have been shown to greatly influence how much food people eat. This may seem questionable but there is serious science to back it. A study by Ravandi showed that reducing plate size from large to small can decrease food waste by up to 30% meaning shrinking plates can help shrink food waste and such presentational changes are certainly worth pursuing.

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3.      Caterers Held to High Standards

Events caterers also often have high standards for food, with catering departments being highly selective about ingredients. This contributes to a larger problem which is the rejection of ‘imperfect’ ingredients which have perfect taste and quality but may be a slightly unconventional shape. Wonky vegetables create an estimated 50 million tonnes of food waste every year- without even hitting supermarket shelves. If catered events moved to use such produce, it could serve to significantly boost demand for this produce thus making it more of a viable option for suppliers to sell and thus eventually making them less likely to discard it, thus helping to reduce pre-farmgate losses. The individual consumer can also contribute to this change, as wonky vegetables are now accessible through specialised services such as ODDBOX, and “Wonky Veg Boxes” offered by supermarkets like Morrisons.

Help The Hungry

Although a combination of these preventative measures would be effective in reducing an event’s waste, it is difficult to always eliminate food waste entirely and leftovers from an event are inevitable. However, there are a variety of options available to prevent this food ending up in a bin. Considering in many cases catered events happen in close proximity to homeless populations who often lack access to sufficient food supplies, excess food from such events can be redistributed to these populations who are in need. The brilliant work of charities such as FoodCycle achieves just that. Alternatively apps such as Olio provide an opportunity to redistribute this food quickly and effectively to people in the local area. If you’re a student, it’s worth checking out as your university may be using it currently.

Waste is… Power?

It may be the case however that there is leftover food which may not prove suitable for redistribution to other individuals, or there may be a lack of people available to accept this excess food, but still there are still ways in which this excess food can be put to productive use. Take for example the University of Nottingham’s partnership with BioDynamic, a company who convert the university’s food waste into biogas which can then be used on their campus. Their food meets a productive end and reducing their reliance on other fuel sources. 

BioDynamic Biogas Plant, Nottingham. Image Credit:

As we begin to plan for the events of the future and reconceptualize their formats, now is an opportune time to pressure institutions to rethink their methods of catering and food waste disposal; with such a variety of alternative options available, there is no longer any excuse for caterers to simply bin those blinis. 

About the Author: Oliver Kumar is a 3rd year environment student at LSE. He spends a lot of his free time trying to manage being a parent to a rapidly growing collection of plants.

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